And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. Truly I tell you, they already have their full reward. But when you pray, go into your inner room, shut your door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. And your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not babble on like pagans, for they think that by their many words they will be heard. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.Matthew 6:5-8
For a long time, I thought something was wrong with me; for I seemed to be the only person in the world who did not understand prayer in the least. It seemed to me I was to ask God for things He already supposed I needed because otherwise I might not get them. Forgive the irreverence, but it all seemed a bit egotistic on God’s part, or like some kind of sick game. I did not understand at the time (and indeed I forget even now far too often) that prayer was, in the words of Julian of Norwich “not overcoming God’s reluctance but laying hold of His willingness.” And so, in my oft moments of human need as I attempted to cover with prayer the vast expanses of my anxieties, I naturally came very quickly upon an unbearable burden, for who can overcome the reluctance of God? But before Christ even offers us the model and prayer we now call the Lord’s Prayer, He dispels such illusions that are our anxieties.
Christ prefaces what we now call The Lord’s Prayer by juxtaposing proper prayer against two different types of improper prayer: the prayer of the hypocrites and the prayer of the pagans. To avoid the faults of the prayer of the hypocrite, who apparently pray that they might be seen by their fellow men in high regard, one ought to pray in secret, unseen by men, to the Father who is also unseen. And then the unseen Father will see the unseen man and reward him, perhaps by a glimpse of things that remain unseen to the hypocrites.
To avoid the faults of the prayer of the pagan, one ought not to babble on and on, for according to Christ in doing so one is attempting to do that which Julian of Norwich said was not prayer–overcome God’s reluctance–rather than what she said was prayer–laying hold of His willingness, or, in this case, remembering that our Heavenly Father knows what we need before we even ask Him. More and more words and more and more requests will not, then, automatically result in more and more answered prayer. Such a type of prayer might even be remedied by replacing any words at all with a simple meditation upon the simple fact that “Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” I for one am glad Christ said this, because I often find I do not know what I need even when I am asking Him. Make no mistake, I know what I think I need. But the more I pray the less sure I am that what I think I need is what I actually need.
And then there is the prayer itself, the contents of which I will not cover in depth here. For I feel the Lord’s Prayer, like a good many other things in Scripture, has to many not only lost its luster, but its sanctity. I fear it has lost its meaning not because it cannot sustain meaning across time, but because we have forgotten it. We might venture so far as to memorize the words like a creed (though I know a good many who do not even do that anymore) but fail to understand or explore their meaning. And so we keep it around, like baptism and communion, because we know we ought to, but do not quite remember why, other than that we should.
It is like studying a mosaic or a stained glass window and memorizing the fact that there is a triangular shard of green in the bottom left corner and a red square with a rounded corner on the top right and a myriad of other “facts” about the whole mosaic and fail to understand that what we are looking at is an image from a great tale, attempting to awaken us to some great truth.
We lose the forest through the trees. Worse than that, nowadays we get bored with the sacred forest of our ancestors and either chop it down or move on to another one.
I sometimes fancy a Christian world where none of the gospels include Christ teaching his disciples to pray. But in this world oral tradition still had it that he once did teach his disciples a prayer, but it was lost. For one, how obsessed would we be with either discovering or speculating over what it might have been? But more importantly, if we were to discover it, the entire way we conducted the Christian life and church services would change. We would implement it left and right. Pore over it. Explore it. And most certainly, pray it.
I should here mention I would not be so stupid as to chastise any prayer which is not the Lord’s Prayer. Our Lord Himself prayed a good many other prayers, as did his followers. And I myself pray several prayers that have been handed down to me by my Christian ancestors. I do however, sometimes squirm at the excess of freestyle, “pray-as-you-go” prayers. For I have found that the old burden quickly returns once again, and with magic words I attempt to lay hold of that which God offers freely.
That is not to say I do not veer off script from time to time. Of course this happens. But what is the structure from which we venture? What is the structure which guides our prayers, so we do not veer too far? That is, after all, what old, passed down things–traditions–are often for: to guard.
Perhaps one can freestyle in the same way a good athlete and his trainer will from time to time adjust or move from a training regimen. But if an athlete were to act as a freestyle prayer warrior, first of all he would have no trainer. It would be up to the athlete what he would do that day. And it would be whatever he felt like doing. As the Lord’s Prayer, and ancient Christian prayers, begin with a certain mindset–remembering God’s goodness–and proper worship of God, so the proper athlete begins with a good bit of focus and stretching, ramps up the intensity, and cools down. Structures are often in place for a reason. And proper training requires the athlete to submit their will and pour their energy into the regimen until it becomes as natural as walking or breathing.
The freestyle prayer warrior may object that only praying the old prayers is Pharisaical, and that may from time to time be true. But I do hope they would acknowledge that freestyle prayers with their many fancy spiritual words can lean towards being a bit pagan, attempting to overcome God’s reluctance and forgetting His Providence.
But I am not trying to rag on the freestyle prayer warriors too much. Again, in my own prayer time, I sometimes go off script. I am merely pointing out that if everything is off-script, there is no structure to return to or to guard. I am here in this rabbit trail pointing out that having a prayer life which only ever freestyles is inevitably burdensome and dangerous, and we might all do well to implement some ancient Christian prayers, beginning with the one our Lord has given us.
Finally, I would venture to say that if we could somehow perfect prayer, if we could distill it down its very essence and in a few words and short phrases cover every aspect of reality–from the loftiest height of being to the lowliest depth of need–we would eventually find ourselves beginning such a perfect prayer with the words “Our Father, who art in heaven…” and hopefully we should all know where it would go from there.
3 thoughts on “The Lord’s Prayer and Freestyle Praying”
Well thought out, well said.
I enjoyed the reference of freestyle prayer to that of an athlete without a trainer, other than that I enjoyed hearing your thoughts.